Nayarit, Mexico

Nayarit - a small Mexican destination with big offerings.

By Irene Middleman Thomas
Photography by Mark Rush


My husband looked quite dashing trotting along on his sleek Arabian mount, wielding the polo mallet at the new, sumptuous La Patrona Polo & Equestrian Club. We were in San Francisco, affectionately known as “San Pancho,” a delightful small town on the Pacific coastline of the Mexican state of Nayarit. Polo (at an affordable price) is just one of the many offerings we’ve enjoyed in the Riviera Nayarit on our repeated visits to the region. 

The so-called Riviera consists of 16 delightfully distinctive villages along 192 miles of Nayarit’s coastline, beginning about 10 minutes north of the Puerto Vallarta airport. These villages connect to each other with just a few miles and minutes separating them, all overlooking the blue Pacific, backdropped by verdant, dramatically beautiful mountain ranges. Each town has its own personality and its own ambience, and this diverse region attracts birdwatchers, surfers, wildlife enthusiasts and those seeking the authentic, unsullied-by-tourism Mexico.

The Riviera Nayarit’s most southern point is Nuevo Vallarta, with the birder-beloved town of San Blas at its northern limit. Nayarit’s modern, intercoastal highway is serviced by comfortable, air-conditioned buses that stop by each town with very reasonable fares, or one can rent a car or use taxis, also much cheaper than in the United States. 

Nayarit includes the exclusive celebrity and one-percenter hideout of Punta Mita; Sayulita, the “boho-chic” surfing haven; friendly, relaxed San Pancho; miles of serene beaches and the spectacular Banderas Bay. The region attracts and satiates vacationers of all tastes and budgets with its wide range of accommodations including chic luxury resorts (think St. Regis, Four Seasons and a uber-hip, spanking new W,) gorgeous, no-worries all-inclusives, condominiums, eco-tourism boutique hotels and cozy, folkloric B&B inns.

On our most recent visit, we arrived at Mar al Cielo Eco-Retreat right before the dazzling Pacific sunset adorned the sky, with oranges, pinks and yellows swirling around a core of light blue, somewhat reminiscent of the Northern Lights, but with the caress of tropical warmth. Out of the lush coconut palm grove, an adorable coatimundi ventured tentatively to drink from the lily-pad pond a few feet away, while a large land crab scuttled through the grasses. We sipped our frosty margaritas and marveled. Late November, with most of the U.S. hunkering down into winter and here I was, in our paradise. This 11-acre private retreat, with just one boutique-style lodging, is a gem in the jungle — one of many such treasures in Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit.

In past years, we’ve released hundreds of baby turtles, toured the La Tovara crocodile sanctuary (chock-filled with the big beasts,) gorged ourselves on succulent seafood, gaped at whales, bird watched and volunteered at San Pancho’s Entreamigos, a one-of-a-kind community center. We strolled endlessly on cobblestone streets, marveling at colonial architecture, lush gardens and flowers, and at the infinity of live music everywhere. Coming  home, our world here seems very sterile and quiet indeed.

We’ve travelled through magnificent green countryside with rolling hills, endless sugar cane fields with fronds blowing in the breeze, mango, banana, and papaya orchards and tobacco farms. We were just inches from an exquisitely beautiful jaguar, viewed thousands of migratory birds in the emerald-green rainforest, and have delighted in trying succulent drinks and dishes (TIP: do not miss the local grilled fish specialty — pescado zarandeado) we had never heard of before.

I am mesmerized by the fascinating Huichol culture – a reclusive people who maintain their language, traditions and intricate artisan work. A few come to town to sell their wares, bedecked in brightly colored embroidered white costumes. My husband and I were thrilled by our Huichol ritual massages, performed by a husband and wife team who spoke quietly to each other in their lilting language while attending to us — and for $5 USD — with incredibly satisfying results. The Huichol artisans travel to the weekly outdoor markets rotating through the various towns.

On our last morning, we took a walk drinking in the warmth and greenery, dreading the cold, dreary winter back home. We smelled tortillas browning, coffee brewing and jasmine blooming. The cacophony of cock-a-doodling roosters sang out along with the trilling warblers, and fluorescent purple, orange and pink fuchsia and bougainvillea tumbled over the road in canopies. Strolling on through the early light on the shiny cobblestone streets, I found myself smiling at lazy dogs enjoying the sunlight, barely lifting their heads as we walked by. 

Days after our return to reality, I find myself often thinking of our impromptu roadside stop at a mango distribution site. The man in charge came out in dirty overalls, brushing off his hands to shake ours. “Welcome,” he said, and invited us to explore in the friendly hand gestures and smiles anyone would understand. We watched crates of mangoes being sorted by smiling women, dogs lazing at their sides; and the gregarious man sent us on our way with a bag of luscious peachy/pink mangoes exuding that indescribable aroma that only the ripest fruit has and he wouldn’t accept any payment. “Enjoy!,” he said. And we did, every day, with juice dripping down our chins. What a wonderful, fascinating, delicious, beautiful destination this is – and how hard it is to leave.